In my last post about building a digital comic strip archive, I tried to sketch out why I thought early comic strips would make a good subject for an Omeka-based archive. (I could have gone on for ages, but I’m trying to keep this brief– also the reason for breaking it up into installments…) This post is dedicated to looking at why a digital archive using Omeka would be an optimal format to explore the topic.
The best online projects are the ones that don’t try to mimic the functionality of any other medium– if your website could just as easily have been a book, you’re not adding much value by putting it online. I think an online database collecting early comic strips would be the optimal medium for such a project.
The primary advantage of an online database would be the ability to use multiple categories or tags as organizational tools. A single strip could be included in multiple categories. To take one example, a single strip from Harry Hershfield’s Abie the Agent, a strip about a European Jewish immigrant, a car salesman who was also vehemently and vocally opposed American involvement in what he described as “that Europel war.” One strip from this comic could be categorized according to the various newspapers that included it (it was notably more popular in urban costal cities, and not distributed to many middle-American small town newspapers), under King Features Syndicate, which distributed the strip, under the strip’s title, the cartoonist’s name, under “automobiles,” “Jewish characters,” “WWI”… the list goes on.
The ability to sort by a variety of means brings together the collection as a dynamic thing, a research tool in and of itself.
Omeka has two primary functions: collections management and exhibition. So far I’ve just been discussing the former. Now a few thoughts on the latter:
Once the collection has a substantial number of item/strips within it, I think it would be a great thing to have thematic essay/exhibits. An essay on the debate over neutrality during the Great War, accompanied by strips that reflect the debate. Another on issues of race and ethnicity in early comics. Another on the formal evolution of the medium, the gradual conventionalizing of things like word balloons, thought balloons, elements of visual storytelling, etc.
What makes these comics an invaluable tool for historical research is the multitude of voices, perspectives, and themes that they encompass. An online collection could highlight a variety of issues within this multitude, allowing visitors to follow their interests, rather than making some hierarchical linear narrative.
Comics history is an under-researched topic. Aside from the ghettoization of the medium itself, it’s commonly being assigned to the dustbin of kiddie fare and ephemera, what little attention the topic does receive is divided into several niche markets of interest. There’s the Nostalgists, the people who want to look at the history of comics fondly and rather uncritically. Then there’s the Cultural Historians, who want to look at the medium simply as a lens to broader social and cultural trends within society. Finally, you have the Artistic Formalists, who– inspired by the seminal works of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, or Matt Madden, want to look at comics as an artistic medium, and to look at older comics as a window into the evolution of a symbolic system, an artistic code, a mechanism for storytelling.
All three approaches have merit.
All three approaches, however, also have pitfalls, blind spots, and difficulties. This fracturing of the already-small number of those interested in looking at this topic is a perpetual frustration to those of us who want to look at something approaching the bigger picture.
I think that an Early Comic Strip Archive could attract attention and use from all three groups, and that moreover, because the database format is well suited to multiple approaches, it could serve the additional function of bringing these three tribes closer together. Beyond this audience of enthusiasts, as I mentioned earlier, I think that an archive like this could be an invaluable resource to educators trying to make history more interesting to resistant or reluctant students. Comics have humor, visual appeal, and an ever-present iconoclasm that can make history more appealing to the same student who get bored with slogging through dry textbooks and memorizing dates and names.
Next: Potential Pitfalls and Possible Partners